|Why Reception History?|
Most of my academic career has been spent in scholarly investigations--literary, historical, cultural, social, etc.--of the Synoptic Gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke, the parables, and the Historical Jesus. My focus was always on interpreting the texts as best I could in their first-century contexts.
I came to Reception History rather late in my career.
What convinced me to start doing scholarly work in Reception History? A primary impetus was the commentary on Revelation by Chris Rowland and Judith Kovacs in the Blackwell Bible Commentary series. I then realized more fully how much this approach coalesced with my own Bakhtinian perspective on interpreting literary texts.
John Sawyer has said and written many times that how people have interpreted and been influenced by sacred texts like the Bible are often as important (historically, culturally, socially, religiously, etc.) as what the sacred texts "originally" meant.
But Reception History is even more important than that. Even if you are seeking to determine the "original" (a problematic term) meaning of a sacred text, you have to realize how your interpretations are influenced by those interpreters who have preceded us.
To illustrate, let me quote the first paragraph of a wonderful review of my James Through the Centuries (Blackwell Bible Commentary series). The review is from one of the pre-eminent scholars of James, Patrick Hartin, and this is how be begins the review:
David Gowler offers a unique commentary on the letter of James. Simply put, this commentary is not a survey of, but rather a study in, the reception history of James over the centuries. G. explains the philosophical foundation for his approach (p. 3) as originating out of the "Dialogism” of Mikhail Bakhtin: “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (Bakhtin, The Problem of Dostoevsky’s Poetics [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984] 110). G. follows this approach by showing that the “meaning” of James is not to be found in the “genius of the author” alone, but in an interchange between “the creator and the contemplators” (p. 4). In a very real sense we, the readers, as interpreters, are always dependent on the way in which this epistle has been interpreted in the course of its reception history.
I am grateful for Dr. Hartin's review of my book, which is found in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 78 (2016) 366-367. In fact, let me quote his very kind conclusion:
Seldom has a scholarly work given me so much pleasure and provided me with such a rich source of material to which I can return frequently. It may be expensive, but it is worth every cent!
The price of the volume--and the last one I did with Oxford University Press--bothers me, and I know that this book with Baker Academic will be much more affordable (and the two I did with Paulist Press are downright cheap, which makes me feel good).
In closing, perhaps I should cut and paste the post I wrote on 9/21/14: "Why Reception History?"
It covers some of the same ground:
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As a follow-up post to the one I wrote about my honors seminar on the reception history of the parables, I want to include some quotes that I will list at the top of the course's syllabus. These quotes help to illustrate the philosophical foundation of my approach to Reception History (primarily indebted to Mikhail Bakhtin)--and why I do reception history in the first place:
 Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction.
 For what is historical scholarship, if not an ongoing conversation about the past in which no one has the last word.
 The question to ask of pictures from the standpoint of poetics is not just what they mean or what they do but what they want—what claim they make upon us, and how we are to respond.
 I have to answer with my own life for what I have experienced and understood in art, so that everything I have experienced and understood would not remain ineffectual in my life.
 There should be a responsive and responsible ethical moment in the act of reading, including a responsibility that leads to action in social, political, and institutional realms. Interpreters have a responsibility to texts and authors, to students and colleagues, and to society at large. [Note: this is my paraphrase from an article I wrote; I will look up the exact quote]
 . . . parables in their polyvalency, to an extent foresee and anticipate our responses; Jesus created them with one ear already attuned to our answers. Parables, therefore are profoundly dialogic and do not pretend to be the last word, because, in parable, the last word is continually granted to others . . . .
 Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 110.
 Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987), 55.